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15 May, 2024 03:38

French overseas territory under curfew after riots (VIDEOS)

New Caledonia was hit by violent unrest after Paris proposed changing the local voting system
French overseas territory under curfew after riots (VIDEOS)

The French authorities have imposed a curfew, closed the airport, and banned all public gatherings in the Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia, which was swept by protests and riots sparked by a controversial constitutional reform.

Colonized by France in the 19th century, the archipelago has a history of uprisings against foreign rule. The last armed insurgency of the indigenous Kanak people ended in 1988, when Paris agreed to grant increased autonomy to New Caledonia.

The protests began on Monday morning in response to proposed changes to the local voting system. On Tuesday night, the French National Assembly adopted a bill aimed at allowing non-indigenous citizens to vote in New Caledonia’s local elections. The reform, which local independence activists fear will lower the voting power of the Kanaks, still needs to be approved in a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate.

The violent unrest on Monday and Tuesday was accompanied by arson and looting, with local media reporting that gunshots were heard in the regional capital, Noumea.

“More than 130 people were arrested, and dozens of rioters were taken into custody and will be brought to trial,” the office of the French high commissioner in New Caledonia said in a statement, adding that there was an escape attempt at a prison in Noumea.

High Commissioner Louis Le Franc has declared a curfew from 6pm to 6am and banned public gatherings. La Tontouta International Airport in Noumea was closed until further notice on Wednesday.

Additional police officers were dispatched to New Caledonia to help restore order, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Tuesday. He added that more than 70 officers have been injured.

The French authorities defended the reform, with Darmanin describing it as “a moral obligation for those who believe in democracy.”

Noumea Mayor Sonia Lagarde urged all sides to show restraint, warning that the unrest may lead to “some sort of a civil war.” Le Franc expressed the same sentiment on Tuesday: “When we are running towards the abyss, there is always time to stop, but right now we are going straight there.”

The Noumea Accord, signed in 1998, restricted voting in local elections to the Kanaks and non-indigenous residents that had lived in the territory prior to 1998. It also paved the way for independence referendums in 2018, 2020, and 2021. In all three cases, the voters rejected independence from France. The last two referendums, however, were marred by low attendance and boycotts from pro-independence parties, who refused to recognize the results.

One of several island territories held by Paris in the Pacific, New Caledonia has some of the world’s largest nickel deposits, and remains one of the key French outposts in the region where the US and China are vying for influence.